Tough Love

Growing Into the 6th Grade

Education Week, March 2, 2005

In my son Max’s school, 6th grade is known to be the hardest year, a big change from the more nurturing early grades. One teacher in particular is legendary for her toughness. And so, when I learned that she was to be Max’s teacher, I was not looking forward to his starting 6th grade.

Max has always brought out my mother-bear instincts, probably too much so. But to me, Max has always been someone with a huge heart and a thin skin. I never liked to push him because he always tried so hard to do the right thing on his own. Practically from the start, it seemed that Max understood so many things, like about his disabled older brother, learning to accept his brother’s autism with a quiet grace more befitting a social worker than a toddler. As a preschooler, Max was quick to relinquish the toy that the other toddler wanted, handing it over with a smile and wide blue eyes that seemed astonished and forgiving. I would often intervene, trying to make the world be more fair to Max. With Max, I was both proud and fearful, because here was a child who was so empathic, so well-mannered; and yet, how could such a child protect himself in this tough world? We did not want to make things harder for him than life already had.

And so it was with great trepidation that I sent Max off to 6th grade, fearing it was going to be hard for him, without all that nurturing. The difficulties began within weeks, after the first few tests came back. Max and I were sitting by the school playground, absorbing the remaining October sunlight, when suddenly his teacher swooped down on us.

“Max, we’re going to have to talk about this,” she said, looking at both of us, brandishing a folded paper. “Did he tell you about his grades?” Without waiting for an answer, she continued, “Max, I know you can do much better than this. I’ve seen your scores.”

I had never paid much attention to those kind of test results because he had always done so well in class that they did not matter to me. Then, a memory flickered somewhere; yes, he had scored in a very high percentile on the Iowas. I cleared my throat. “How badly did he do?”

She looked me in the eye and said, “He got a C. We should talk about it, because this isn’t the first one.”

Not the first one? Suddenly I felt like I was the one in trouble.

“But he didn’t tell you, right?” She smiled, not unkindly. “Get used to it. He’s going to tell you less and less, because he’s in 6th grade now and it only gets worse. That’s why we have to be on top of him, to get him to do what he needs to do.” Oh, really, I thought. Not my Max! He always did the right thing. He did not need to be driven so hard.

Or did he? I couldn’t ignore the fact of the surprise C. And so, because falling behind was not an option, for the next few months Max worked hard, harder than I’d ever seen him work. He established a new routine of coming home, spilling out his backpack on the dining room table, weeding through the papers, and getting right to work. It seemed like an overly intense schedule, but he had no choice. True to his teacher’s prediction, he talked to me less and less over the year, and I tried to give him space, while at the same time making sure he was OK and doing what was expected of him. But I felt saddened by the change, as if something precious had been lost.

Then one day I could not stand it anymore; I was worried about him. I decided to ask him how he thought it was going, and take action if necessary. I would transfer him out if I had to. “So,” I said, “What do you think of your teacher these days?” It was winter, and we were navigating our way to the car through the old, crunchy snow, looking at our feet and not at each other; the better to converse with a taciturn preteen boy.

“I like her,” he said immediately. “She’s a little too into her rules, you know, but…”

He liked her! I tried to hide my surprise. “You don’t mind the work?”

“No, not really.”

I looked sideways at this boy, who had grown to my height in this one year, and perhaps in other ways as well.

“Oh,” I said slowly, “I’m glad.” And I realized I was. I breathed deeply and let it all go. So she had not scared him off. And he had risen to her challenge.

Spring came, and it was time for the final parent-teacher conference. I read through Max’s social studies tests, with multipart answers, complete, complex sentences, critical thinking, and analysis. I looked at A math tests that reminded me of junior year of high school, and a creative-writing assignment that brought me to tears.

But in the end, it was not the litany of successes and achievements the teacher showed me that took my breath away that day. It was after all that, when she turned to me and said, “You know, I have to say, Max is a wonderful boy. So kind. Really special. I have rarely seen a kid like this. You should be very proud.”

And I finally understood. I had been praised for Max before; but coming from her, it felt all the more genuine. I looked over at Max, who was very red, but smiling, too. So he was still my sweet, kind Max. But because of this tough, wise teacher, he had proved to all of us that he was so much more.